Sunday, December 18, 2022

A Klondike Christmas

Jack London (1876–1916)
From American Christmas Stories

Double-page illustration by American artist Ignacio Gomez (b. 1941) for the first publication of “A Klondike Christmas,” 78 years after it was written, in the December 1976 issue of Boys’ Life.
In the summer of 1898, when Jack London returned to his home in Oakland from a misfortune-ridden excursion in the Klondike, he decided to settle down and become a professional writer. By the end of the year, the 22-year-old was nearly defeated. “About the loneliest Christmas I ever faced, guess I’ll write to you,” began his letter to his girlfriend for the past two years, Mabel Applegarth, whose family had moved to the South Bay area. “Nothing to speak of, though—everything quiet. How I wish I were down at College Park [in San Jose], if for no more than a couple of hours. Nobody to talk to, no friend to visit—nay, if there were, and if I so desired, I would not be in position to.” He was so broke that his rented typewriter would have to be returned on New Year’s Eve. He had accumulated nearly fifty rejection notices and had heard nothing in response to several other submissions, including “Where Boys Are Men,” a seven-part serial sent with high hopes to The Youth’s Companion.

There had been only one somewhat promising development in recent weeks. About a month earlier, he delivered one of his manuscripts to The Overland Monthly, the San Francisco magazine that had helped propel to national prominence such writers as Bret Harte, Mark Twain, John Muir, and Ambrose Bierce. The publisher at the time, James Howard Bridge, described thirty years later what happened next:
One day, toward the end of ’98, my assistant Green came into my office and said there was a man outside who had a story to sell, and wanted an immediate decision as to its acceptability. I went to the outer office and greeted him. He said his name was Jack London. “You mean ‘John,’” I said. “No, just Jack,” was the reply. He looked like a tramp, and nothing like a man who could have written an acceptable story for Bret Harte’s old magazine. But when he said he had just come down from the Klondike, I said “Give me your story and come back tomorrow.” I took the manuscript home with me that night and had the surprise of my life. . . . I understood that he had never published before, and that he had come into the office because he needed money—was in fact “dead-broke.” Of course, there was no hesitation when I saw him the next morning.

“We will accept your story, and pay our maximum price—$25—for it. If you will write us a series of six stories, I will pay for them as you bring them in. . . .”
Although Bridge deserves credit as the first editor to publish a short story by Jack London, the details of his reminiscence must be unpacked and judged for their veracity—beginning, of course, with the unlikelihood that a magazine publisher who had once served as secretary to Andrew Carnegie would invite an unknown “tramp” back to his office. Fortunately, we have Jack’s account of what happened in a letter he sent to Mabel at the time:
Received a letter from the Overland Monthly. This is the substance of it: — We have read your MS. Are so greatly pleased with it, that, though we have an enormous quantity of accepted and paid-for material on hand, we will at once publish it in the January number, if — aye, if you can content yourself with five dollars.

There are between three and four thousand words in it. Worth far more than five dollars, at the ordinary reportorial rate of so much per column. What do you think of that for a first class magazine like the Overland?
London seems to have been unaware that the Overland had declined from the esteem and financing of its heyday; Bierce had begun calling it The Warmed-Overland Monthly. Given the dearth of opportunities, however, London accepted the offer of five dollars and then agreed to write seven additional stories set in the Klondike for $7.50 a piece—a far cry from the $25 Bridge later claimed to pay his authors. It would be a full two months before London received the five dollars for the first story, and he would endure an ongoing struggle that year to get the rest of the payments owed to him.

When the January 1899 issue containing his first story, “To the Man on Trail,” appeared in December, London had to borrow a dime to buy a copy so he could sent it to Mabel. The editors had added a subtitle, “A Klondike Christmas,” and had also changed the title to “To the Man on the Trail,” which did not please the author. “What trail? The thing was abstract,” he complained to a friend.

In the second half of the twentieth century, as London’s archives were opened to researchers, another manuscript with the title “A Klondike Christmas” was found. While “To the Man on Trail” is a Klondike story set on Christmas Day, “A Klondike Christmas” is better described as a Christmas story set in the Klondike. London’s notebooks reveal that both stories were drafted at about the same time, in November 1898, and they seem to be two very different versions of the same idea. In “To the Man on Trail,” the Malamute Kid, a recurring character in London’s stories, is preparing “punch” (whiskey, brandy, pepper sauce) for a Christmas gathering when a stranger shows up and claims to be in pursuit of thieves who have stolen his sled dogs—but the Kid quickly realizes the stranger is the one on the lam. In London’s earlier version, “A Klondike Christmas,” two brothers are scraping together odds and ends for Christmas dinner when unexpected guests arrive, including a burly stranger who, this time, really is in hot pursuit of dog thieves. London sent the Christmas story to Harper’s Round Table, an “illustrated monthly magazine for youth,” which declined it, and then to Youth and Age, which accepted it and promised to pay on publication. When Christmas 1899 passed with the story still unpublished, London requested return of the manuscript and filed it away.

Because it was written for young readers, “A Klondike Christmas” displays a sentimental optimism not found in London’s other stories of the Far North. London had little reason to be optimistic; shortly after his first story appeared, he finally heard from The Youth’s Companion—yet another rejection—and, forlorn, he responded to the magazine, “I understand and appreciate your urging me to not make writing my means of livelihood.” Neither London nor the editors had any way of knowing that, during the next six years, sixteen of his stories would appear in the pages of the magazine and London would become one of the highest-paid writers in the world.

Note: At the end of the nineteenth century, the word “bully,” made popular by Theodore Roosevelt (“Bully for you!”) was used to express approval, as in “cool” or “excellent.”

*   *   *
My dearest Mother:
       Here we are, all safe and sound, and snugly settled down in winter quarters. Have received no letters yet, so you can imagine how we long to hear from home
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